The British potter Magdalene Odundo is one of the world’s leading ceramicists. Born in Nairobi and trained in Kenya, Nigeria and England, she is renowned for her large vessels with burnished surfaces of black and orange and shapes that hint at the human body. Each piece is built by hand (not thrown on a wheel) and coated with a slip – an ancient method of sealing ceramics using a watery mix of very fine clay particles – before it receives multiple firings. These sculptural objects are much sought after by collectors and museums, but there is only one example in a public collection in Canada: a sinuous black vessel with button-like protrusions down its spine, held by the Gardiner Museum in Toronto.
The Gardiner is currently mounting an exhibition of Odundo’s work featuring that vessel and 20 more, dating from 1984 to the present. The show, which continues to April 21, also includes modern art (a Robert Motherwell work on paper; a pair of Helen Frankenthaler paintings) and traditional or historic objects (a Haida or Tlingit basket; a pre-Colombian vessel featuring the figure of a bat) that the artist has selected from various Canadian collections. On the one hand, these mark her affinity for classic modernism and contemporary art. On the other, they establish ancient precedents for her global pottery.
You have devoted your career to this one specific medium. Why ceramics?
Most people who work in clay will tell you how seductive the material is to work with, how tactile, its plasticity, its practicality, its ability to kind of be formed.
But it is also a very natural material, a very human material. It’s something that we encounter every day. It can be manipulated, made into surprising things, objects and architecture. People talk about man being formed from clay in the original creation myths and fables and tales. I don’t think there’s any kind of society that you come across that has no relationship with clay.
You learned hand-building techniques in East Africa and at the Abuja Pottery Training Centre in Nigeria, but why hand-built rather than wheel-thrown?
I found hand-building a lot easier to work with because I could get the forms that I wanted much easier than if I was throwing. If I worked on a wheel, it would take me exactly the same amount of time because I would have to stop and add these components on top. I couldn’t do them in one go. There wouldn’t be any advantage.
A lot of your pieces suggest bodies, and I wondered whether the hand-building relates to that: You cut out the intermediary between the clay and your body,
I don’t really think it is that. It’s more conceptual. I’m inspired by the human body and movement – the movement of a person through dancing, the interaction between human beings in crowds or in solo poses. The human body is a vessel in itself and the references of the body and the human being are very prevalent in pottery language: the foot, the hands, the lip.
Your works have echoes of traditional vessels, gourds and water pots. But, here they sit in a museum on plinths encased in plexiglass. No one would ever dare pour water in them. Ceramics have their roots in their practical uses; it keeps them grounded. What’s your relationship with function?
Sometimes the function is beyond just carrying water or pouring a cup of tea, beyond just a utilitarian function. A ceramic piece, a very playful piece that echoes the body of a woman, it has a function as well. It’s a visual function. When we say form and function, do we mean the form is for performing a utilitarian purpose or the form is aesthetic, for visual satisfaction? Both are functional.
Sacred pieces, there to perform rites of passage, they’re still functional. Some people, when they’re migrating they will carry a little pot with them, not necessarily to put water in. It has a spiritual function, it carries the soul and the idea of what it is to be to be human.
These pieces here, being in cases, is not unusual: If you bought a piece that is special for you, the first thing you do, you put it on a mantelpiece, and it becomes a piece that you look at every day. It could be just a Toby jug, but it’s so special for you, it’s performing a function that is not what you bought it for.
In this show, curator Sequoia Miller suggests there is a potential political interpretation to your work, that it speaks of a transcultural practice that is “embodied, hybrid and anti-colonial.” Is that a conscious project on your part?
At the time I was growing up, the world was opening and the consciousness of “other” was happening. It was becoming more inclusive, media was opening up the world. The experience of being able to travel beyond my own boundaries, it enables you to reach out to this otherness, enables one to appreciate it, this universality of a human being.
Artists don’t live in a vacuum. We don’t live in isolation. When you get back into your studio when you’re making work, you’re surely affected by what goes on.
The world today is so much in flux that artists have incredible subjects. They can sit and create, and see their thoughts manifested in the work they produced at the end of the day.
There’s a relationship between your work and the pure forms of classic modernism. If there are representational let alone political references, it’s subtle.
What is important to me is that you interpret it in the best way, so that people can have references to what is familiar, but also what is new. That there is a bit of discovery of themselves – what makes them love or what makes them move.
The beauty of three-dimensional objects is that it gives you the chance to have a dialogue with the work but also to dance in-between the work too, to have an intellectual discussion but also to just have a visual reaction, an emotional reaction to the work, and not necessarily have to read a label.